Modernism is a contentious issue in Indian art, and becomes even more so when seen in the light of what took place before it. In its process of becoming modern Indian at has emerged as an unfixed category as varied as its percipients. ‘Hundred Years: From the National Gallery of Modern Art Collection,’ Delhi, curated by the art historian Geeta Kapur, reveals the multileveled development of Indian art as it wends its way from the late nineteenth century to the contemporaries. In the middle years the whole drama of modernity takes place in paintings interlayered with meanings to do with the development of not only an iconography for art but for modern India art well.
It was the last nineteenth century artist Ravi Varma who first developed an Indian manner in oil painting, thereby bridging the gap between the imported academic styles taught in the art schools and the surrounding reality. His paintings are an accurate observation of details worked in naturalistic style but with an Indian stance, incorporating theatre, mime, and sensuality. Varma influenced the painters of Bombay such as Pestonji Bomanji and M.F Pithawala, students at the J.J School of Art. Bomanji’s Parsee girl, painted in 1887, is a meticulous study of a young girl dressed in a richly embroidered Parsi attire staring winsomely out of the picture frame. M.F Pithawala, who won the gold medal thrice from the Bombay Art Society from 1907 to 1909 for his portraits, painted realistic works such as My Mother or Artist by Himself. It is worth noting that painters like Bomanji stayed for years at the Ajanta Caves preparing facsimile copies of its frescoes for a project undertaken by the School. Yet none of the artists of the period were drawn to the aesthetics of Ajanta but rather aspired to master the western technique of illusionistic realism.
A.X. Trindade and M.V. Durandhar continue the academic realist tradition in Bombay; the former’s Girl with Vase is a recognisably Goan girl holding a vase for the camera, as it were. Across the room facing Trindade is the young Amrita Sher-Gil’s study, titled Nude, of a woman’s stark nudity shorn of all romanticism in an almost defiant posture.
Sher-Gil studied in Paris and her exquisite Young Man with Apples pays homage to Cezanne. Across the room facing Sher-Gil’s Young Girls, a study of two women in conversation, is Ravi Varma’s masterpiece Portrait of a Lady, a grand study of a bejewelled noble Indian woman dressed in a black and old sari sitting on a red velvet chair. The distance between the two paintings spans not only two civilisations but two divergent ways of working with paint, perfectly counterpoised.
It seems right to pause at Abanindranath Tagore, who spearheaded the Bengal School with its call for a return to the Indianness of Indian art. Working in the orientalist mode, the compositions draw heavily not only on Mughal miniatures but also Japanese wash technique. If later movements were to consider these works lifeless and artificial, they are nonetheless exquisite gems in themselves.
In the whole thrust towards modernism, there are many highs and lows but nothing can be compared to the first splendour of form coming into its own. Amrita Sher-Gil was awarded a gold medal in 1973 by the Bombay Art Society for her masterpiece Group of Young Girls. Paintings such as Woman on Charpai or The Swing or Rest, made around this time, depict women in their strength as well as sadness. As Kapur puts it in her ‘Working Notes for the Exhibition’.
‘She is the threshold of modernism and she is judging for herself the means of representation befitting the unique position of the “native woman of genius” in modern India. In the process she paradoxically decides to mask her own impetuous self with a personal given over to reverie, or rather to an actual impersonation of the melancholic life of the traditional woman.’ Kapur places Jamini Roy alongside Sher-Gil to demonstrate that these two artists, seemingly so different, are working somewhat in tandem in the matter of sensuous stylisation that is fitted into the picture frame with such formal confidence and intimacy.’ Deriving his impulses from a different source - that of the pata paintings of Bengal - Jamini Roy retains simplicity of form and earthy colours while developing a modernist stance. The juxtaposition of these two painters asserts the tension which was to become the underlying dynamic of modern Indian art.
The orientalist quest of the Bengal School had, in the meantime, led to its own questioning by artists like Ramkinker Baij,who subverts the Indianness of Indian art by being at once avant-garde and eclectic ,introducing cubism and impressionism in the same breath. Ramkinker’s contemporary, Nandalal Bose on the other hand, was gearing his works to the nationalistic effort. In the late 1930s Bose was rejuvenating the ‘Hindu’ image with its representations of Arjuna in a horizontal panel on silk and a series of tempera paper cartoons for his mural on the walls of Kirti Mandir, Baroda. As Kapur points out, ‘These monumental works recall the nationalistic drive, as it began to be articulated from Bakimchandra Chatterjee onward, for changing what was seen to be the emasculated face of Hinduism. It is a measure of Nandalal Bose’s civilisation vision rather than sticking safely to say, Ajanta, or the classical periods of Indian sculpture, he is using “translation” techniques by deploying the radiant, empathetically medieval and quasi exotic Tankha image from Tibet. By choosing to draw on a pictorial tradition with transmuted Chinese antecedents, there is, even if inadvertently, a rather tendentious act of rejuvenation in the “Hindu” image. And there is thus the working out of a syncretic visual culture appropriate to his age. ‘On the opposite wall are the works by four Bomaby painters: KK Hebbar, SB Palsikar, Mohan Samant and Laxman Pai, who were vehemently opposed to the ‘revivalist’ mode of the Bengal School. Yet their constructed Indianness from various traditional sources does not differ greatly in effect from that of the Bengal School.
We then reach a sublime pitch with Rabindranath Tagore, who began painting very late in his life. His intense, brooding figures encircle the room, wringing the very depths. Their dark, glowing, colours reach the hallowed heights of perfection. The forms emerge from nowhere, from the inner depths, things of beauty in themselves.
In the juncture between the nineteenth century and the post-modern there is a dawning realisation that modernism in India has never been a matter of linear development; rather, it has had constant divergences and digressions that rupture its image, leaving the passage clear for complex modes. Having traversed the terrain of the modern, the contemporaries query modernism at the idealogical and linguistic level.
Among the artists who invert the logic ofthemodern in Bhupen Khakhar who, in his use of iconography from bazaar art, calendar art and kitsch, upturns the morality of the middle class. In his Man with a Bouquet of Plastic Flowers, the frozen iconic stance of the ordinary man holding flowers reveals his inner emptiness in the midst of the rituals of daily life. Influenced by Mughal miniatures Gulammohammed Sheikh hallucinates about flying figures which, in Hovering and Meghdoot, perennially watch the floodlit neon colours light up streets and houses. Bikash Bhattacharjee’s and Ladi’s surrealist reference to toys and their extraordinary nature is counterpoised with Ravinder Reddy’s gigantic, and overtly real, life-sized doll.
Contemporary narrative painting also utilises a more expressionist base for its allegorical mode. Vivan Sundaram’s paintings of oriental seduction presents ironical reference to neo-colonialism. V.Ramesh, in his Broken Boats and Tangled Nets, depicts a looming fisherman in all his exhaustion and strength while the debris of the storm lies behind him. N.N. Rimzon’s sculpture of painted fibre glass titled Man in a Chalk Circle presents a male pariah figure whose painted surface evokes both horror and awe. An early K.C.S. Paniker chronicles life along the Malabar coast following the great fresco tradition of India, al the same time conveying mood through expressionist devices. A. Ramchandran also utilises the fresco tradition in Gandhari while invoking allegorical references in the Nandalal Bose style.
Sculpture intervenes, asserting its presence. A strong expressionistic tendancy can be seen in Latika Katt’s bronze heads of Bendre, Somnath Hore and Jeram Patel and on the opposite wall an abundant Madhura Singh by Ramkinker Baij. The bronze peasant woman by Meera Mukherjee, drawing from Bastar tribal art, acts as a counterpoint showing its origins in the folk. Following this are Satish Gujral’s abstract wood sculptures of snake hooded deity and K.G.Subramanyan’s playful narrative of garments in terracotta. Towering over everything is the erotic knotted rope composition Rudra by Mrinalini Mukherjee.
One cannot enter the hallowed precincts of modernism without first encountering Nandalal Bose, Benode Bihari Mukherjee and K.G.Subramanyan. A lively reference to everyday life is made in the Haripura panels by Nandalal Bose made at the behest of Mahatma Gandhi who asked him to paint for the Haripura session of the Indian National Congress in 1938. Benode Bihari Mukherjee’s epic narration of the medieval saints of India spoke of the lives of ordinary folk for the Hindi Bhavan at Shantiniketan in 1947. The multiplicity of everyday life is tapped by K.G.Subramanyan through his references to popular art and glass paintings in his vivid oil on acrylic sheets. In opposition - but also in tandem - are the works of Calcutta-based Jamini Roy, whose voluptuous bodies refer simultaneously to folk and Kalighat pats and modernist devices of abbreviation. The contradictions and similarities between these works create a rhythm that demonstartes the move towards the modern.
The introduction of the modern and,by implication, urbnisation finds its counterpart in the depiction of the heraldic peasant figure in Indian art. M.F.Husain’s seminal mural Zameen represents all the motifs and village India - the lantern,the wheel, the bull and the pack-mule, the armed man and the pregnant woman - an assembly of objects that both literally and figuratively evoke images of a nation in the process of transformation. Krishen Khanna’s Black Truck, painted in austere black, depicts the movement from the land to the city, perhaps in the early hours of the morning. A generation later, Gieve Patel paints the Indian farmer, an emblematic figure in red with a green turban against the backdrop of a hald-industrilised landscape. With Sudhir Patwardhan’s Accident on May Day 1981 we come to the workers, their tight bodies jostling each other at the railway station as they carry away an accident victim. The distant fields can be seen poignantly from the gap between two railway compartments.
At this point a move towards Indianness emerges, this time in the forms of Neo-Tantrik artists such as Biren De and G.R. Santosh, S.H.Raza, Vishvanadhan and Palinappan transfigure the metaphysical into abstract compositions in an attempt to reconstruct Tantric art in contemporary terms.
J. Swaminathan’s works reach rarefied heights in colours that simulate light and images in which metaphysical thought is distilled in images of beauty: the leaf as luminous as light and the bird perched upside down on it in abeyance of materiality.
Art and Asiapacific, Quarterly Journal, Indian Issue, Volume 2,no.1, 1995, pp. 88-91